Bigwig Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, already notorious for his sometimes-violent temper tantrums and general ruthlessness, has been revealed as a serial sexual harasser. According to a New York Times investigation, Weinstein often lured women to his hotel room, on the pretense of a job interview, where Weinstein would appear in a robe and ask them to give him a massage or watch him shower. He would frequently turn work-related discussions sexual, to the point where some women would avoid ever meeting with him alone.
The fact pattern is now wearingly familiar. A powerful man abuses and coerces vulnerable women and uses his position to keep them quiet. See also: Trump, Cosby, Ailes, O’Reilly. It really is incredible how many awful men get away with doing awful things, without serious public consequences. Hugh Hefner treated his girlfriends like sexual servants housed in a minimum-security prison, yet received warm obituaries in “liberal” newspapers. Jeffrey Epstein, billionaire friend to Clinton and Trump alike, raped underage girls and received a slap on the wrist. (Trump on Epstein: “a terrific guy” who “likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”) Clarence Thomas has been on the Supreme Court for over two decades, because Joe Biden didn’t care what Anita Hill had to say. O’Reilly sexually harassed women for years, yet just knocked Hillary Clinton off the top of the bestsellers list, and walked away from FOX with $25 million. (Regardless of one’s opinion of Clinton, it’s depressing and infuriating watching the country’s most prominent female politician repeatedly edged out by harassers.) I could spend 10,000 words just listing the names of men, their despicable acts, and the various ways in which they have gotten away with them. Cosby is the exception, of course, since he was charged with a crime (albeit at the age of 79), but Cosby’s behavior was also the worst, since he literally committed outright rape (or “allegedly” committed, but come on), and even Cosby was able to continue his stand-up comedy tour after the facts received attention. (And powerful men’s impunity isn’t limited to sex crimes. Consider what Joe Arpaio did to people, or the rehabilitation of George W. Bush’s reputation by liberals who like his art.)
The sheer amount of sexual harassment and abuse in the world is always horrifying to contemplate. Ailes and Weinstein may have been at the top of powerful companies, but their behavior is so common that the experience of it has become almost a universal fact of women’s lives. Writer Anne T. Donahue asked women on Twitter to tell about their own personal Harvey Weinsteins, knowing just how many would have them. Sure enough, she received thousands of responses, all of them incredibly disturbing:
- “High school science teacher, 10th grade, would make all the girls sit up front, comment on clothes/looks, positive & negative, for years.” (A reply: “Your science teacher was my history teacher, it seems.”)
- “He trapped me in a bathroom and tried to get me to touch his dick even after i begged him to leave. “
- “I was 16 and auditioned for his independent pilot – he told me the scene was about seducing an older man and to improv with him.”
- “I was born to my Harvey Weinstein.”
After Donald Trump’s history of assaulting women was revealed a year ago, writer Kelly Oxford had issued a similar call for stories, and likewise received thousands of personal accounts. (e.g. “Older man next to me slips hand under my butt/vagina at movie theater. I was 7. I’ve only ever told that to 2 people.”) Nearly all women get sexually harassed sooner or later in their lives, and when the perpetrators are bosses or teachers or relatives, staying silent about it may end up seeming the best option. As Abi Wilkinson writes in the New Statesman, the more precarious a woman’s job, the fewer options one has when an employer starts behaving inappropriately:
The relationship between employer and employee involves an imbalance of power. Under capitalism, most of us sell our labour in order to pay for the things we need to stay alive. It should come as no surprise to anyone with even the vaguest understanding of human behaviour that some employers are prepared to exploit this unequal dynamic for sexual purposes.
Wilkinson writes of her own experience of the dilemma that comes with economic powerlessness, when her own boss became flirtatious and there seemed no way to refuse without jeopardizing her job. In fact, one of the common themes of accounts submitted to Donahue and Oxford is just how difficult it was to speak up, both during the incident and afterwards, first because of a fear of offending or aggravating the harasser, and second because of doubt that anything can come from speaking out (and who would you speak to anyway?) Poor women simply have less ability to walk away from a horrific boss, and there are so many horrific bosses. It is, as Wilkinson writes, one very good argument for being a socialist: in a democratized workplace, single individuals don’t wield exorbitant amounts of power over everybody else.
I’ve never known quite how to describe it, but there’s this kind of huge public lie that occurs, where we pretend not to know that many people are charming in public and assholes in private. There’s the Harvey Weinstein everyone pretends exists, the champion of liberal causes who hosts fundraisers for the Clintons, and the Harvey Weinstein that actually exists in his relationships with the people around him. We know that having power and status and money often turns you into a horrible person (and that the horrible people are the ones who will pursue those things to begin with), and yet so many of these horrible people are successful in molding a positive public image. (I have devoted a lot of text to wondering why Bill Clinton, who seems to have treated nearly everyone around him in a manipulative and deceitful manner, is still liked by anyone.)
One of the things that struck me when reading about Harvey Weinstein is that, even before the actual harassment revelations were printed, there was plenty of publicly available evidence that he was a toxic human being. After Julie Taymor disagreed with Weinstein, he shouted at her husband: “I don’t like the look on your face. Why don’t you defend your wife, so I can beat the shit out of you?” He consistently referred to one of his interns as “Fuckface” instead of by their name because he felt like reminding them of his superiority. He called journalist Rebecca Traister a “cunt” to her face, and pushed her colleague Andrew Goldman down a set of steps, dragging Goldman into the street in a headlock, after declaring that he was the “fucking sheriff of this town.” He was just an all-around unpleasant individual.
Even without the sexual harassment, people who treat others this badly shouldn’t be indulged just because they run a movie studio. There is an unbelievable amount of license afforded to men who can get themselves labeled “brilliant but temperamental.” See, for example, director David O. Russell, who is known to “humiliate and scream at his subordinates,” throw things, swear at or even physically assault his actors—he called Lily Tomlin a “bitch” and a “cunt” and kicked one of his extras who was nervous doing a scene with George Clooney. (Is it shocking that Russell later admitted to groping his niece? But don’t miss his upcoming TV series for Amazon starring Robert De Niro!) Men like this are often called “complicated,” their total sociopathic disregard for other people taken as a symptom of their genius. But we should heed the assessment of Vixen Daily: “A guy who acts like a total piece of crap towards you isn’t ‘complicated’… he’s a total piece of crap.” I wish there was a lot less tolerance, not just for outright harassment and assault, but assholes more broadly. Bosses who treat their assistants poorly are bad people; they should never be excused because they are “visionaries.” (Also, a lot of men christened “geniuses” are nothing of the kind. They’re just very good at making other people feel stupid through exploiting insecurities.)
There are plenty of reasons why these men get away with it. The most obvious, of course, is that nebulous thing called “power.” Harvey Weinstein could make or break careers. Roger Ailes would determine whether a woman had a future at FOX News. Such men are manipulators, and they use carrots and sticks: “You can do very well at this organization if you cooperate, and if you don’t, good luck finding another job.” They are also vicious and litigious. Cosby, of course, immediately sued seven of his accusers. When the Daily Beast reported on Trump’s ex-wife’s 1980s allegation that he had brutally raped her, the threats the reporter received from Trump’s lawyer were almost cartoonish:
I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know…. So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me? You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word ‘rape,’ and I’m going to mess your life up… for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet… you’re going to have judgments against you, so much money, you’ll never know how to get out from underneath it.
Nobody should wonder, then, why women don’t come forward, or why they wait to go public until somebody else has. Money is power, and you really don’t want a rich sociopath deciding that he will do whatever he can to ruin your life.
But here’s another important aspect of “power”: in order for it to exist, other people have to cooperate with it. And Harvey Weinstein’s case is not just a story about a serial abuser, but about an industry that willingly tolerated his serial abuse. Weinstein’s conduct was an “open secret” in Hollywood (the parts unrelated to sex had even been printed in the media), yet people who were already very rich and famous and had nothing to lose continued to work with him. It’s understandable when people who are vulnerable, like low-level employees, feel unable to say or do anything. It’s less understandable when it comes from people who Harvey Weinstein had very little real “power” over. Hollywood, despite its reputation for liberalism, has long tolerated rampant sexism in its midst, not only in casting, but in rewarding men like Dr. Dre, Bill Murray, Casey Affleck, Terry Richardson, and Johnny Depp who have histories of sexual misconduct or violence. And of course there’s the icky ongoing industry support for Roman Polanski; over 100 high-profile celebrities and directors—including, shockingly, Woody Allen and Harvey Weinstein—signed a petition supporting Polanski, who, let us remember, raped a child (possibly several), though he also did make Chinatown.
For abuse to persist over a long period of time, it often requires complicity. Consider the case of Jimmy Savile in the U.K. Savile was a popular children’s TV host and a major philanthropist, who was knighted by the Queen. After his death, it came out that he was also a serial rapist, on an almost unimaginable scale, with thousands of victims, possibly even 1,000 just on the BBC premises. Savile donated money to hospitals, who would grant him unmonitored access to the wards, where he would rape sick children as young as 8. He did this for decades, at over a dozen hospitals. It was one of the most shocking acts of mass abuse in recent history.
But Savile’s mass attacks could not have occurred without mass complicity. Plenty of people knew what he was doing. Hospital staff knew, and simply warned patients he was a “dirty old man” whom they should try to avoid. BBC executives knew. The police knew. Heck, he even wrote in his 1974 autobiography about how he managed to persuade the police not to press charges after coercing an underage girl into having sex with him. (He was given a knighthood in 1990.)
It was baffling that so many people could know about Savile’s crimes and do nothing. It’s understandable, of course, that the victims themselves felt powerless because of Savile’s fame and power. But what’s less understandable is the behavior of the bystanders, those who knew what was going on but refrained from intervening. Some of them may have felt “threatened” by Savile’s status. But let’s be serious: he was a children’s TV host. He was not exactly God Almighty. Many of Jimmy Savile’s victims did come forward, but were laughed at or ignored, and everyone who did the laughing and ignoring was partly responsible for the continuing of the abuse.
Likewise, Harvey Weinstein was a powerful guy in Hollywood, certainly. Nobody should ever lay the slightest blame upon his victims. His enablers, on the other hand, bear significant responsibility, including those around him who allowed him to cultivate a reputation as a committed proponent of women’s rights. Those journalists who had heard about Weinstein’s activities but decided not to investigate should examine their own consciences. Rebecca Traister admitted she had known about Weinstein’s private acts for 17 years, but it didn’t even cross her mind to write about them, partly because Weinstein was terrifying and partly because “back then, I didn’t write about feminism.” Now, I understand why Traister didn’t touch the story, especially when she had watched Weinstein violently attack her boyfriend. But I think it’s a journalist’s duty not to conceal the secrets of powerful people. From Traister’s account, it seems as if journalists are very easily intimidated by the rich and famous, and it’s reasonable to wonder what else is an “open secret” among journalists that nobody is willing to disclose.
It’s important for journalists who learn things like this to ask themselves: how powerful is this person, really? I am sure many of them worry about what someone like Harvey Weinstein might “do” if something came out. After all, the New York Times made sure to include a vast number of sources in the story, and Weinstein is suing them anyway (despite having seemingly admitted the allegations). But journalists aren’t in the motion picture industry; he can sue you, but if your story is well-reported enough, that’s often an empty threat. (God bless the 1st Amendment; in England, one reason the Savile stories never got into the press is that the law defines “libel” much more broadly.) Donald Trump spent years threatening to sue journalists who crossed him. He never succeeded. Still, they pulled punches: according to Megyn Kelly, Trump seemed worried that she would ask him about his ex-wife’s rape allegation against him. And yet Kelly didn’t ask.
One reason journalists need to be bolder is that it’s easy to get fooled into believing a person’s own portrayal of their power. But unless you’re trying to get your screenplay produced, guys like Harvey Weinstein are just blowhards. There’s nothing to lose from angering them. Journalists are often terrified of irritating people in positions of status. But I suspect that often has less to do with an actual fear of some concrete reprisal than the very strong human inclination not to “make waves.” There can also be a lot of social pressure, and if there’s one thing Stanley Milgram taught us, it’s that the fear of speaking up when our peers are silent can lead us to tolerate extraordinary atrocities, even if the people committing them have no real power over us.
But journalists and industry insiders can make up for their long tolerance of Weinstein by refusing to play a part in his (inevitable) attempt at rehabilitating his reputation. Weinstein has already issued an absurd “apology,” in which he attempts to simultaneously atone for and justify his behavior. He blames it on growing up in the “60s and 70s,” when the culture was different. (Note: “I was a child during the decades of the women’s liberation movement” is not a convincing excuse for treating your female employees like shit.) Previously, he has blamed his aggressive behavior on having too much sugar in his diet, and said it got better after he stopped eating M&Ms. Weinstein’s apology statement touts his commitment to feminism, plugs his upcoming film about the president, and misquotes Jay-Z. It is not the sign of a man changed (especially since immediately after apologizing he vowed to sue the newspaper). Yet Weinstein has already had support from attorney Lisa Bloom (daughter of Gloria Allred), who described him as an “old dinosaur learning new ways.” Nobody, least of all a women’s rights attorney like Bloom, should be assisting in this man’s attempt to justify himself.
How many more monsters are there out there like Harvey Weinstein? So many, probably some not quite as bad as him, some far worse. Women know the world is full of creeps. It’s refreshing, of course, to see that we’re moving into the era where this is somewhat less acceptable, where Bill O’Reilly can be forced out of his job. But we also still live in an economically precarious world, where bosses can easily exploit employees, and until that changes, the only ones stopped may be the high-profile offenders and the ones whose behavior is sufficiently well-documented and repeats enough times. It often seems to be the case that anyone can get away with this for a while, and it’s only when there are literally dozens of women that anyone even begins to find the accounts plausible. While it will take a lot of effort to change the balance of power, though, so that rich assholes are no longer allowed to do whatever they please without anything happening to them, we can at least develop a lower tolerance for such people and for the people who tolerate such people themselves. If you don’t have anything to lose personally, and it would help, there should be no excuse for not acting. The world is full of Harvey Weinsteins, and I am sick of putting up with them.